Although crossovers have practically taken over the market in recent years, precious few of them possess true off-road capabilities of bygone era SUVs. Unibody car/SUV mashup with few extra inches of ground clearance can’t really compete with rugged body-on-frame off-road SUVs of old. But, although off-road enthusiasts would take any classic SUV over comparable modern crossover, not all of them were successful back in the day. Back then, people were still content with their conventional sedans, half-ton pickups and occasional wagon. Choices were limited compared to modern crossover options, yet much more colorful than modern day body-on-frame SUV offering.
This time, we’ll be focusing on some forgotten SUVs and trucks with commendable off-road capabilities. Following nameplates weren’t exactly popular to begin with, so it’s understandable very few people remember them these days. However, they’ve earned their spot in the limitless history pages of former models. If nothing else, then for their off-road capabilities at least. That’s why we feel obliged to mention them every once in a while. Just to save them from oblivion which so often threatens to engulf vehicles like these.
1999-2001 Isuzu VehiCROSS
You don’t often hear about them, but Isuzu Motors are still alive. Barely, though, compared to a time frame of two or three decades ago. They now mostly deal in commercial vehicles, but it wasn’t that long ago they offered a full lineup of passenger cars. One might say Japanese giant is another automaker in the long list of GM casualties, but that’s not the topic this time around.
The topic is Isuzu VehiCROSS – compact V6-powered SUV of immense oddity and potential for becoming a future classic. Why, you might ask? Because there simply weren’t enough cars like these. VehiCROSS shared both its chassis and powertrain with larger and better-known Isuzu Trooper. It was initially marketed in Japan between 1997 and 1999. Back then, it came with smaller 3.2L V6 mill. Only 1,805 of them were produced due to strict Japanese tax regulations. Other 4,153 models were built for the U.S. market between 1999 and 2001. These packed 3.5L V6 with 215 hp and 230 lb-ft of torque. Aside from more than adequate power for a compact, VehiCROSS also boasted rather advanced all-wheel drive system. Even for today’s standards. BorgWarner’s Torque On Demand system consisted of 12 sensors which diverted power to the wheels with the most traction. Under normal condition, though, the system operates in rear-wheel drive mode.
Isuzu VehiCROSS has all the necessary prerequisites for a future classic. It’s long-gone, it’s produced by what’s basically a dead brand in limited numbers, it has unconventional yet still contemporary design, and it’s tough as nails. Not surprising it’s one of the first rare obscured off-road SUVs that come to mind.
1974-1981 Plymouth Trailduster
Dodge Ramcharger was Chrysler’s answer to shortened full-size pickup truck wheelbase SUVs that appeared in late sixties. It was pitted head to head with Ford Bronco and Chevy K5 Blazer. But although people remember Ramcharger, and remember it fondly, there was another almost identical Chrysler offering under different badge. I’m talking about somewhat obscured and forgotten Plymouth Trailduster. Plymouth itself is long gone, but some of their cars are rightfully among the best and most popular American vehicles ever made. Not the Trailduster, though. SUVs and trucks were never Plymouth’s forte. They built them because corporate policy dictated the terms.
This doesn’t mean Trailduster wasn’t capable, though. Being Ramcharger’s identical mechanical twin, it offered pretty much everything its more popular sibling had. It even mimicked Ramcharger’s engine options which varied from 225ci slant-six to most desirable early offering 440ci V8. Throughout Trailduster’s run, however, most common options were 318ci V8 and 360ci V8 Chrysler LA mills.
Other than that, both Trailduster and Ramcharger sported removable tops throughout the first generation run and mandatory all-wheel drive for the first few years. When Trailduster got axed in 1981, Ramcharger lost a part of its identity too. It may have survived until 1994 (revived for three additional millennium years), but it lost its first gen charm together with removable roof. Chrysler now owns Jeep, but we still long for off-road Dodge (let alone long dead Plymouth) with removable bits and pieces.
1988-1992 Daihatsu Rocky
No, it wasn’t named after our favorite working class hero portrayed by Sylvester Stallone. It was named after the Rocky Mountains which were supposed to be its natural habitat. Daihatsu Rocky had a few additional names overseas with Rocky being North American exclusive. It was most commonly known as Feroza pretty much everywhere else except in UK where it carried Sportrak nameplate. Sadly, Rocky never managed to establish a foothold in the U.S. American buyers were more inclined towards larger SUVs. Plus, compact SUV market was traditional Jeep territory.
Despite that, Daihatsu still managed to sell close to 7,500 of these minis in the U.S. 295 units concluding with 1989, 4,354 and 2,761 models the following two years respectively, and only 19 Rocky’s in 1992. Japanese automaker which produced the 1.6L in-line four-powered compact SUV making 94 horsepower had pulled out of the U.S. market that year. They only had two offerings (other being the supermini car Charade), so it’s understandable Daihatsu were doomed from the get-go.
But Rocky certainly deserved more than that. Mini SUV that packed 30 ponies more than the Suzuki Samurai, came with either a soft or a hardtop, and featured nifty inclinometer on the dash should have been more common on the streets today. Sadly, as it often happens, it isn’t.
1996-1999 Acura SLX
Not only aforementioned VehiCROSS was based on Isuzu Trooper. Acura SLX was too. And it was more than that. SLX was basically a rebadged version of the second generation boxy SUV. Although Acura has a fully stacked lineup of crossovers these days, they certainly don’t build them like they used to back in the day. Furthermore, SLX was only one of dozen or so rebadged versions of Isuzu Trooper. Needless to say, it was probably the best. Not only because it donned the luxury Acura badge, but because it was a U.S. exclusive product which passed all the necessary regulative formalities.
Acura SLX did have one shortcoming, though. It was much heavier than its comparable siblings due to all the luxury features it packed, but failed to include more powerful engine into the equation. 3.2L V6 with 190 horsepower was soon replaced by 3.5L V6 making 215 ponies, but that still wasn’t enough. All-wheel drive and low-range transfer case did make it a credible off-roader, though. That’s exactly what Honda’s luxury division aimed at. They wanted to market the SLX as versatile ute capable of traversing all terrains and still looking stylish among the city skyscrapers.
Although sales were poor, Acura SLX remains one of the most interesting and mystique offerings Japanese division ever marketed. Consumer Reports had a lot to do with SLX’s dismal sales. They blacklisted the SUV due to its rollover proneness. At least Acura used this transition period to finally developed SUV of their own. MDX would become their best-selling vehicle in years to come.
1993-1998 Honda Crossroad
Acura SLX wasn’t the only SUV Honda has rebadged during the nineties. Honda Crossroad wasn’t more than Series 1 Land Rover Discovery with Japanese maker’s badge on it. This time, however, they reversed the luxury/affordable roles as Honda Crossroad slotted below the British original in terms of available amenities.
The reason you probably never heard about Honda Crossroad (not to be confused with recently discontinued Crosstour oddball) is the fact it was only marketed in Japan and New Zealand. It even had Rover’s 3.9L V8 tied to 4-speed automatic as its sole powertrain offering. When Land Rover got sold to BMW, Honda had to dissolve their partnership with British auto giant.
This also called for a replacement, and Honda – much like Acura – hit the jackpot. They introduced the CR-V which would become their best-sold SUV for years to come. Only thing that remains behind Honda Crossroad – besides surviving models – is lamenting the fact it never made it into the U.S. With its Land Rover-like capabilities and dumping price compared to the original, it probably could have raised some eyebrows.
1966-1973 Jeepster Commando
Jeepster Commando is one of those obscure unconventional Jeeps you might have trouble recognizing today. Jeepster was first introduced in 1948 and ran for two years before being axed. It was notable for being the last phaeton car produced by a large automaker. Then in 1966, Jeep decided to resurrect it. At least its name. For Jeepster Commando was now modern vehicle available in four different forms including a roadster, a convertible, a wagon and even a pickup truck.
While still under Kaiser rule, Jeepster Commando was motivated either by standard 75-horsepower Hurricane straight-four or optional 160-horsepower Dauntless V6. When AMC took over in 1971, Jeepster bit was removed from SUV’s name while three additional engines were added. AMC’s 232ci straight-six and 258ci straight-six were standard the first year, while 1973 year models only came with 150-horsepower AMC 304ci V8 mill. The same V8, optional at first, initially developed 210 ponies, but, you know… catalytic converters.
Jeepster Commando was a great option for those who bought more than one. All four versions were basically the same up to their beltlines. They differed thanks to interchangeable parts above the beltline which meant upper body panels could have been swapped with ease. Sadly, AMC brass were never keen on keeping Commando. Pickup version was quickly replaced by CJ-8 Scrambler, while other platforms were succeeded by Jeep Cherokee.
1953-1975 International Harvester Travelall
International Harvester Scout is finally getting the credit it deserves, although people still tend to forget it more often then they should. Travelall which predates it by almost a decade, on the other hand, is basically forgotten by now. For a car that’s served as people carrier for four generations and that’s been guinea pig for numerous revolutionary advancements, that’s really sad.
Travelall was based on International Harvester’s full-size pickup which was their other light duty vehicle at the time. It might have come after Chevy Suburban, but still managed to predate the longest running American vehicle by a year in offering the optional all-wheel drive. Moreover, Travelall offered four doors since 1961 – 10 years prior to Chevy. Until that major redesign in 1961, Travelall only came with two Silver Diamond inline-six engines. Third and fourth generation, however, remedied that by finally bringing optional V8 mills. International’s own at first, and AMC’s later on. But despite its capability and practicality, Travelall would not survive the oil crisis of ’73. International lacked the means to sustain it through years of adversity like GM did with Suburban.
By the time its run came at the end, International Travelall was also one modern wagon type SUV. Wood grain trim, vinyl top and button-tufted seats made it so. Axed in 1975 together with pickup upon which it was based on, Travelall left Scout as only remaining IH’s light duty vehicle. It’s ironic that one of the SUV pioneers never lived long enough to experience the SUV craze of late eighties and early nineties.
2003-2006 Subaru Baja
Well, Baja definitely wasn’t as interesting as the BRAT. That’s why it only remained alive for three short years. Then again, everything that Subaru makes is interesting in one way or another. Being based on Subaru Legacy/Outback, you knew straightaway that Baja would become one durable and reliable ute. Maybe not the prettiest one, but certainly helpful.
Built in Subaru of Indiana Automotive, Inc. plant in Lafayette, Baja never ventured far away from home. It was only marketed in U.S. and Canada, and made its only lengthy trip to Chile. As every Subaru out there, Baja too benefited from Japanese automaker’s mandatory all-wheel drive. It even got the Boxer engine straight out of Impreza. 2.5L flat-four mill was capable of generating 170 hp and 176 lb-ft of torque, but that wasn’t all.Optional turbocharger raised the output to 210 ponies and 235 lb-ft of torque. Maybe it wasn’t much, but you’ll remember that Baja weighted only 3,750 pounds (3,580 pounds without turbo).
Problem was – Baja wasn’t all that capable when it comes to pickup truck’s main assignment. Moreover, it emanated an aura of cuteness, being petite as it was. And American truck buyers who were used to robust workhorses simply didn’t look too kindly to that.
1996-1998 Suzuki X-90
As if Suzuki Samurai wasn’t obscure enough, here’s another petite SUV from the Japanese automaker better known for producing world class motorbikes. And, of course, another one that flew under American customer’s radar. Only 7,205 of these cute, targa removable top minis were imported to the U.S. which makes them as rare as most other SUVs from this list.
Powered by 1.6L 4-cylinder, Suzuki Samurai’s replacement already managed to deliver where its more famous predecessor had failed. Suzuki X-90 had 95 horsepower – almost 30 more than comparably larger Samurai. Weighing just 2,400 pounds, that gave it almost sports car-like driving dynamics. All the more reason to be saddened by X-90’s untimely demise. Especially since it never got a successor. Not even unworthy one.
Red Bull’s early promotional vehicle wasn’t exactly a premium off-roader, but no one can deny it was fun. Furthermore, they’re practically available for free these days which makes them extremely appealing for first-time off-road enthusiasts. Squeeze the soul out of one of these and you can move on to the big guns. Like the aforementioned Rocky, Samurai or even one of the classic Jeeps.
1991-1994 Mazda Navajo
In a strange turn of events, between 1991 and 1994, one American carmaker actually supplied one Japanese automaker with a badge engineered vehicle. Mazda Navajo was actually nothing other than a 2-door Ford Explorer. It was Mazda’s very first off-roader built at Ford’s Louisville, Kentucky Plant alongside its role model.
Former Motor Trend’s Car of the Year for 1991, obviously shared its mechanical bits with Ford Explorer too. 4.0L Cologne V6, at first developed measly 155 horsepower. A figure which would see a slight increase for 1993 model year. 5 additional ponies, however, didn’t really change things for Mazda’s firstborn (or rather adopted) SUV. It was still sluggish compared to today’s standards, but at least mandatory all-wheel drive (rear-wheel drive offered in 1992) gave it some fine off-road credentials.
Sales were slow, however, and Mazda had to kill Navajo after Explorer received its first substantial facelift in 1994. This would leave the Japanese without SUV in their lineup. At least until they introduced smaller Mazda Tribute crossover 7 years afterwards. A vehicle that was also based on Ford – Escape this time. Navajo might not have been the best of off-road SUVs, but it sure is forgotten by now.